A saviour is born in the workhouse

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The Independent Online
It was Christmas Eve in the workhouse and the festive signs were few. There was, it was true, a handsomely illuminated tree at the end of the imposing drive from the main gatehouse and fairy lights had been intertwined through the rolled barbed-wire atop the high perimeter wall and up each leg of the watchtowers. But you would search hard through those bleak acres for a convincing indication that the true yuletide spirit was upon the place.

Over in the football wing, the shrieked instructions of the coaches blended with the squeal of rubber soles on the sweat-soaked floor of the Delicate Skills Unit as the cream of the nation's young players dribbled swift and interminable patterns; from the hall housing the Aggressive Rugby tutorials, the thudding of tackle-bags being hit in unison by 100 chaffed shoulders punctuated the loud rumbling from the session of prolonged power- sprinting for props; and, in the cricket compound, scores of indoor nets resounded with the dull clunk of straight bats meeting fast balls in Professor Boycott's Advanced Innings-building Class.

The workhouse - or, to give it its formal name, the British Academy of Sport - would normally have been empty at this holiday time and the students at home with their families. But a series of disastrous international results had driven the country into one of those gloomy moods from which immediate relief could be gained only by knowing that those responsible for representing us in the arenas of the world, both present and future, would relinquish their Christmas break as penance for their inadequacies and a reminder of the high standards expected.

It would be wrong to think that all feelings of mercy had been removed from Britain's sports lovers in this year of 2010. Compassionate hearts still ruled the heads and despite the severity of the workhouse's Christmas curriculum there was time for soft-heartedness. Why, on this very evening a 13-year-old student from football's Intensive Defensive Heading course was allowed out under escort to visit the Category A Sports Correction Institute at Lilleshall where his father was serving two years for missing a penalty in a World Cup qualifier against Liechtenstein.

Of course, all this progress in hammering home to sportsmen the importance of bringing success to their country would have been impossible to foresee when the idea of a sporting academy was first mooted in 1995 by the then Prime Minister, John Major, who promptly forgot about it and re-mooted it in 1996 when he suddenly discovered access to a large amount of lottery money.

Such had been the national disappointment at the lack of glory in Euro 96 and the Atlanta Olympics and then at the shoddy showings of England's rugby and cricket teams, there was great excitement at the creation of an academy to provide what Mr Major called "a ladder of sporting opportunity for young people of all abilities". The Government followed this up by announcing that lottery money would be available to finance the best sportsmen and women so that they could concentrate on training without having to worry about earning a living.

All this was back in the good old days when England's cricketing opponents had to bat twice before they could win and when even Argentina and Italy's rugby teams couldn't bank on winning here, much as they deserved to. Christmas 1996 also went into history as the time when the grand old Duke of Edinburgh alerted the nation to the wider use of cricket bats than merely trying in vain to hit balls bowled by foreigners. They have been invaluable in keeping discipline at the academy, ever since.

Now, those days seem almost halcyon. Britain's sporting achievements continued to plummet and the more freely lottery money was pumped in the less patient became the nation. Headlines like "Sporting Scroungers" and "Snivelling Ingrates" dominated the newspapers. And, for all their extra training and financial incentives, the more pressure put on our sporting representatives the more they struggled to achieve any measure of glory.

Europe must take some of the blame. As a blatant attempt to hurt Mr Major in retaliation against his failure to control the Euro-sceptics, the European Union decided to make cricket the continent's official summer sport. How we laughed at the prospect of countries like Germany and Italy trying to play cricket...

The Test in which France beat England by an innings and 200 runs at the de luxe new Parc des Stumps cricket stadium in Paris will go down in infamy alongside the day Westphalia beat Tuscany in the final of the NatWest Trophy at Lord's.

And the nation's reaction when we failed to win our usual rowing gold in the Sydney Olympics in the year 2000 was apoplectic. Where was the great Steve Redgrave? Apparently, he suffered a disappointment after gaining his fourth gold in 1996 and decided to forsake rowing in favour of Formula One motor racing. "There's millions to be earned, more awards to be won and your arms don't hurt as much," he explained.

This succession of brutal disappointments had a profound affect on the nation's attitude. The academy, once the glittering, luxurious hub of its ambitions, became increasingly grim and spartan. Elite sportspeople, once desperate to be chosen to attend it, now had to be forced. The National Sporting Conscription Act made it illegal to refuse.

Once there, the burden of failure was often too painful to contemplate. Brilliantly talented young men would kneel at their bedsides and say prayers like: "Please God, don't let Jack Rowell pick me at outside-half."

The academy rightly earned its name as the workhouse and never more so than on this Christmas Eve when all imprisoned therein were so intently pre-occupied that no one noticed the bright star that magically appeared over the Child Prodigy Experimental Wing. Housed in stables previously occupied by the disgraced and now defunct equestrian team, the wing was a maternity home for hand-picked young ladies from all over the world whose sporting pedigree made the birth of their baby on British soil highly desirable. Descendants of Pele were particularly welcome.

There seemed nothing special about the child born that night, apart from the arrival of three swarthy and mysterious men who were waved through by the bored guards. The visitors placed gifts at the feet of the new arrival and intoned in quiet voices: "Hail to the one we've been waiting for. Strong as a lion, swift as a gazelle, brilliant in the air, a shot in either foot, and an eye for the half-chance. A fierce rucker, ferocious tackler, beautiful handler and a sidestep made in Heaven. An unplayable fast bowler, impeccable timing with the bat, every stroke in the book and deadly at first slip."

Their obeisance over, they glided into the night and in the peaceful darkness that followed their departure, the baby in the next crib leaned over to the newcomer and whispered: "Take a tip from me, pal. It doesn't pay to be too good in this place. They end up crucifying you."

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